MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A national panel of legal experts recommended the immediate release of a Black man sentenced to life in prison as a teenager nearly two decades ago.
The panel also said Minnesota police appeared to have suffered from “tunnel vision” while investigating the case of Myon Burrell, who was convicted of killing a little girl hit by a stray bullet in 2002. In addition, the panel said, among the other serious flaws in the high-profile case, police ignored witnesses and evidence that might have helped eliminate Burrell as a suspect.
The panel, which was created to examine Burrell's conviction and sentence, released it's report Tuesday. Many of its findings mirrored those uncovered by an Associated Press and APM Reports investigation earlier this year. They included unreliable testimony from the sole eyewitness; a heavy reliance on jailhouse informants who received “extraordinarily generous” sentence reductions in exchange for their testimonies; and a failure to retrieve surveillance video from a corner store — footage that Burrell, now 34, has always maintained would have cleared him.
The eight-member panel was unable to address Burrell’s guilt or innocence, saying its work was hampered by Hennepin County Prosecutor Mike Freeman’s failure to provide all of the evidence the panel requested. It recommended that the case be handed over to the state’s new conviction review unit for further investigation, noting that the missing police and prosecution files, witness interviews, tape recordings and details about deals cut with jailhouse informants “may yield new evidence of actual innocence or due process issues.”
In the meantime, the panel members said they supported Burrell’s release from prison, noting his age at the time of the crime, that he had no prior record and that he behaved well behind bars. They pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years has argued against overly harsh sentences for juveniles, saying their brains and decision-making skills are not fully developed.
“The extensive work of this outstanding legal panel supports the immediate release of Myon Burrell," said Nekima Levy Armstrong, who heads the Minneapolis-based Racial Justice Network, adding that the case “represents everything that is wrong with the criminal justice system and the ease with which an innocent person can be convicted."
Burrell was accused of pulling the trigger that killed Tyesha Edwards, a sixth grade Black girl who was shot through the heart while doing homework at her dining room table with her sister. Her death enraged the African American community, which was tired of losing children to guns and gang violence.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who was then the city’s top prosecutor, has held up Burrell’s conviction throughout her political career as an example of her tough-on-crime policies that helped put away young, dangerous offenders in the name of justice.
After she raised the case again on the Democratic presidential debate stage last year, the AP published the findings of its investigation, which raised several red flags surrounding the case. They included:
— No hard evidence: No gun, DNA, or fingerprints were found.
— Video footage showing the lead homicide detective offering a man in police custody $500 for Burrell’s name, even if it was just hearsay.
— Burrell’s co-defendants saying the teenager wasn't at the scene that day. And one of them, Isaiah Tyson, said he, not Burrell, was the actual triggerman.
The investigation's findings sparked national outrage and gave Burrell’s family and community organizers the ammunition needed to get Klobuchar’s attention. She said the case deserved a fresh look and called for the creation of the state's conviction review unit — which received federal funding two months ago — to examine other questionable cases. Protecting the innocent was just as important as punishing the guilty, she said.
Laura Nirider, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, and Barry Scheck, co-founder of the national Innocence Project, served as advisors to the panel, which included a former state attorney general, a former federal prosecutor, a member of the country’s first conviction integrity unit, and the past president of the national Innocence Network.
Several Minnesota organizations, including the state's chapters of the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union, also supported the panel’s efforts.
The report acknowledged the devastating impact that Tyesha’s death had on her family and the community, and said most of her surviving relatives chose not to comment about his recommended release from prison. One family member explained that the issue was “super touchy.”
But Tyesha’s biological father, Jimmie Edwards, said he hoped Burrell, who has already served 18 years, would remain behind bars.
“If you do the crime, you do the time,” he was quoted as telling the panel. “The guy is a thug, and his whole family is thugs ... he should have had his ass in school. I hope and pray they will not release him.”
Throughout the report, the panel pointed to troubling examples of “tunnel vision,” a term used when authorities build a narrative early in an investigation and zero-in on evidence that supports their theory of guilt while ignoring or suppressing anything that goes against it.
“It’s very common, especially when it comes to high-profile cases,” said Richard Rivera, a former New York police officer who exposed wrongdoing in his own force. “When something does get in our head, and pieces start to fall in place, then we have a tendency to either pursue those pieces or kind of make the square pegs fit in round holes sometimes.”
Though not speaking specifically about Burrell’s case, he said such a closed-minded mentality by investigators can shape the criminal proceedings as a whole, from prosecutions to plea deals.
Burrell’s name was first brought to police two hours after the shooting. They got a jailhouse call from a well-known confidential informant, Isaac Hodge, who said the intended target of the shooting — a low-ranking member of Hodge’s gang — had implicated the teen. Panel members note that these jail calls to the eyewitness and police should have been recorded, but there is no indication they were, which was another key failing.
When Burrell was arrested and interrogated four days later, he told detectives he was at Cup Foods — the same store George Floyd visited in May just before his death in police custody.
Though Burrell told detectives to pull the store’s surveillance footage, there’s no evidence that ever happened, which the panel highlighted as another troubling example of tunnel vision. If Burrell was seen on the video, it could “only disconfirm” investigators' theory that he was the killer, the panel wrote.
However, it was evident early on from jailhouse calls between Burrell and his mother that the teen believed the tapes had been recovered and that he would soon be going home. His mother — who died in a car crash after visiting him in jail three weeks later — reassured him, saying she had gone to Cup Foods with his sister and his girlfriend. She said the store owners told them the footage had already been handed over to the police.
“I bet you they already know I’m innocent!” Burrell is heard telling his mother on the recorded call from jail. “They just don’t know … they ain’t found the right person. And they don’t want to let me go until they find him.”
The panel review also raised serious questions about the inconsistent testimony from the sole eyewitness. He was 150 feet (46 meters) away from the shooter, who was partially concealed behind a wall. And they were skeptical about the stories collected by six jailhouse informants, all of whom also had ties to Hodge, the man who gave police their first tip.
All of the informants stood to benefit by cooperating with authorities and some were considered “serial informants” who provided police information on several cases. One, who said his 16-year sentence was cut to three years, recently told the AP he was lying when he implicated Burrell. Another said he agreed to work with detectives on 14 other cases.
According to the panel, police and prosecutors often turn to “snitches” when they don’t have enough evidence to close a case. Once authorities are married to a theory, it can be difficult to evaluate the reliability of their own informants, sometimes called “falling in love with your rat.” Other cases involving the same informants used to secure Burrell’s conviction also should be considered for review, the panel wrote.
The panel also was concerned that other jailhouse calls and four witnesses with no vested interest were ignored, even though they had information that could have helped exonerate Burrell. One of the most credible was the getaway driver’s girlfriend, who called 911 and pointed to Isaiah Tyson, the self-confessed shooter.
She later told detectives she had been assured Burrell was not at the scene.
Two other eye witnesses also identified Tyson as the shooter, the panel noted, but police appear to have ignored their accounts and never ran ballistics or gunshot residue tests on his jacket.
Burrell’s case has also raised questions about the handling of other criminal investigations, particularly some involving young Black men and women.
“This is not an isolated incident, and we need to free the countless other men and women who have been wrongfully convicted,” said Leslie Redmond, the former president of the Minneapolis NAACP and founder of Don’t Complain, Activate. She said what happened to Burrell was “a shame and should be a crime.”
Freeman released a statement last month maintaining that Burrell was the triggerman. However, he said he would be willing to cut 15 years off Burrell's prison time, which would make him eligible for release when he’s 46, because the current sentence “is too long of a penalty for someone who was convicted as a teenager.”
That angered many community members.
“He’s being vindictive,” said Mel Reeves, of The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the state’s oldest continuously operated Black newspaper. “Because the evidence doesn’t support that. He’s made serious statements about Myon Burrell which border on slander.”
Burrell’s case will be brought before the Minnesota Board of Pardons next week. Whatever it decides, Burrell’s lawyer, Dan Guerrero, said he will continue to fight in court, arguing that Burrell is innocent and deserves a full exoneration.